Catch-22

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Themes and Colors
Paradox and Impossibility Theme Icon
War and Bureaucracy Theme Icon
Communication and Miscommunication Theme Icon
Gallows Humor Theme Icon
Self-interest, Altruism, and Morality Theme Icon
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War and Bureaucracy Theme Icon

The novel also offers a commentary on the absurdity of war, and of the bureaucracies wars create. For example: Major Major appears to have been promoted to his position simply because of his name, not his aptitude, and he remains in this position while doing nothing. The chaplain’s assistant, Whitcomb, is an atheist who will carry out none of his superior’s directives out of a desire to ascend to the role of chaplain himself. Scheisskopf, whose only military skill is a love of organizing parades, is promoted to general, and eventually outranks even Dreedle and Peckem. The CID men dispatched to investigate mail-tampering and forgery eventually settle on the chaplain as the culprit—even when the chaplain’s handwriting doesn’t match the letters’, he is still suspected. Major Sanderson, the staff psychiatrist, uses his sessions with Yossarian to expound on his own neuroses and paranoia. And Milo uses military men and material to serve his own economic interests, even going so far as to aid the Germans to broaden his market.

These are examples of the comic dimension of military bureaucracy: Heller does an exquisite job of sending up the Army’s absurdity. But there is also a tragic dimension. Cathcart’s insistence on continued missions leads to dangerous flights over unnecessary targets, and encourages the slaughter of innocent civilians. These missions result in the death of many characters, including Nately, Clevinger, and Havermeyer. The military makes Dunbar “disappear” for his insubordination. And many officers insist on continued air strikes even after the outcome of the war tilts decidedly in the Allies’ favor. These officers, including Peckem, Dreedle, Korn, and Cathcart, are more concerned about their own promotions and recognition than about the lives of their men or of civilians on the ground. Thus the initially comic nature of military bureaucracy obscures the selfishness, narrow-mindedness, and cruelty of many officials that seems to be the product of that bureaucracy.

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War and Bureaucracy Quotes in Catch-22

Below you will find the important quotes in Catch-22 related to the theme of War and Bureaucracy.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Insanity is contagious. This is the only sane ward in the whole hospital. Everybody is crazy but us. This is probably the only sane ward in the whole world, for that matter.

Related Characters: John “Yo-Yo” Yossarian (speaker)
Related Symbols: Catch-22
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

From the beginning, the novel introduces a state of "in-betweenness" from which Yossarian will try, throughout, to escape. Yossarian's temperature and ailments are not severe enough for him to be treated seriously, but he is not well enough to be sent back into service; he is not "crazy" by any doctor's metric, but he seems also to view the war from a slant, according to rules only he perceives. In this, Yossarian is caught, and the only way for him to be "uncaught" is for him to decide, as it were, whether he is crazy or not, whether he is healthy or not - and of course these are exactly the things one is not capable of deciding for oneself.

Thus this passage introduces the paradoxes of the novel, which unfold from here. Heller is concerned in particular with spaces like the hospital or sick ward, in which people are on the limits both of the battlefield and of life itself - it is these "in-between" places that the novel takes up, again and again, in its illustration of the impossibilities of war. 

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Chapter 2 Quotes

As far back as Yossarian could recall, he explained to Clevinger with a patient smile, somebody was always hatching a plot to kill him.

Related Characters: John “Yo-Yo” Yossarian (speaker), Clevinger
Related Symbols: Catch-22
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

Yossarian's argument here is both simple and mind-bending. Because he is in war, he states, there are people on the other side of the battle who want to kill him. He does not want to be around those people - he wants, instead, to survive. So he does everything he can to avoid battle, knowing that, outside, there are people trying to kill him. 

When fellow soldiers say that Yossarian is behaving irrationally, he argues that they, the other soldiers, are the ones refusing to acknowledge the truth - that enemy soldiers would kill them, too, if they had the chance, and anyone willfully going into battle to be killed is someone not of sound mind. Yossarian seems further to argue that because he is able to do this kind of reasoning he is sane, even though those who cannot, who insist he must fight despite the possibility of his dying, continue to argue that he is insane. 

Chapter 4 Quotes

You’re inches away from death every time you go on a mission. How much older can you be at your age?

Related Characters: Dunbar (speaker), Clevinger
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

Clevinger and Dunbar have an argument about the passage of time during war. Dunbar wants to be bored during wartime - in this way, war itself makes time slow down, and he, Dunbar, feels that he is living longer. Clevinger finds this absurd, and believes that a life worth living is a life of interest - and that being bored is akin to death. Yossarian tries to intervene, saying that each man can live his own way, but Dunbar states that, as an airman, his only job is to stay alive. If he can stay alive, then he is "winning" in the war, and if he dies, then that's the end. Thus, anything that prolongs his life would have to be a good thing.

Dunbar's logic is, therefore, an extension of Yossarian's  - that war is irrational because it forces people to put themselves in situations where they might die. Clevinger represents the "carpe diem" school, and believes that war makes life interesting, and therefore more "lively."

Chapter 5 Quotes

Sure there’s a catch . . . Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.

Related Characters: Doc Daneeka (speaker)
Related Symbols: Catch-22
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

This is perhaps the most famous, and deadly earnest, joke in the novel. Doc Daneeka tells Yossarian that he, Doc, can only keep Yossarian from flying if Yossarian is proved to be insane. But asking not to fly is proof of sanity, because anyone would have to be crazy to volunteer to fly missions over Italy - since the chance of dying is so high. Thus, in trying to escape war, Yossarian behaves rationally and is forced to continue fighting in the war. If Yossarian were to volunteer, then his behavior would be irrational, and would qualify him, in Doc's eyes, for removal from duty - since no sane man would want to fly under these conditions.

Yossarian here hits upon one of the foundational truths of the novel - that war is sustained by a paradox, that people must hurl themselves in the way of danger, irrationally, in order to show how rational and courageous they are - and that war itself continues despite the best efforts of the people fighting the war to stop it. It is as if war takes on a will of its own, and continues without any interference. 

Chapter 7 Quotes

But Yossarian still didn’t understand how Milo could buy eggs in Malta for seven cents apiece and sell them at a profit in Pianosa for five cents.

Related Characters: John “Yo-Yo” Yossarian, Milo Minderbinder
Related Symbols: Catch-22
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is another instance of absurd and paradoxical behavior. Yossarian likes Milo, and he and McWatt believe that Milo must know something they do not, in order to be able to buy eggs for lots of money, sell them for less money, and still, somehow, make money. Of course this isn't possible without some form of criminality or trickery, but McWatt and Yossarian are willing to believe Milo, in part because the conditions of war seem to make anything paradoxical, or seemingly contradictory, possible. The very nature of war itself, as sketched in the idea of the "Catch-22," is an impossible one - since no sane man would fight in a war, and no insane man can prove himself as such. 

Milo, like many characters in the novel, is not so much insane or sane as he is impossible to describe - someone who is doing his best, in the uncertainty and confusion of battle, to continue to live and make a living. 

Chapter 9 Quotes

Even among men lacking all distinction he [Major Major] inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.

Related Characters: Clevinger, Major Major
Related Symbols: Catch-22
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

Another of the paradoxical characters in the novel, Major Major has, in the words of the narrator, never done much of anything in life - he has always been "a mediocrity." Yet he keeps getting promoted, perhaps in part because his name is Major - but perhaps, too, because he is simply in the right place at the right time. He succeeds in his career precisely because he is not opposed to anyone, because he never takes a stance on anything.

Heller is a critic of what he perceives to be the static, lead-footed quality of military bureaucracy. Yossarian himself notes that the military seems to reward those who do nothing to ruffle anyone's feathers - the military is, really, a machine that runs on its own ability to keep running, and soldiers who aid in this "forward motion" without opposing their superiors tend to be rewarded. In this regard, Major Major really is the best at what he does - he is the "most mediocre" and "unimpressive" of all. 

Chapter 10 Quotes

Ex-PFC Wintergreen accepted the role of digging and filling up holes with all the uncomplaining dedication of a true patriot.

Related Characters: Clevinger, Wintergreen
Related Symbols: Catch-22
Page Number: 114
Explanation and Analysis:

Wintergreen is a private, and continues to be a private, because he shirks his duty and, more often than not, deserts. When he does this, he is forced to dig holes - he is given a new duty. And this duty, of shirking his duty and being punished for it, he considers to be his real duty. Thus, in doing his duty Wintergreen is not doing his duty, and in not doing his duty, he would, of course, be doing it - by being a solider on the front lines. Wintergreen notes that this is a Catch-22, and Yossarian, too, perceives that it is.

Wintergreen, then, is a foil to Yossarian. While the latter tries to be labeled "insane" to escape active duty, Wintergreen simply does not go, and his punishment allows him to say he is doing something for the American war cause in Italy. 

Chapter 11 Quotes

“What makes you so sure Major Major is a Communist?”
“You never heard him denying it until we began accusing him, did you? And you don’t see him signing any of our loyalty oaths.”
“You aren’t letting him sign any.”
“Of course not . . . that would defeat the whole purpose of our crusade.”

Related Characters: Doc Daneeka (speaker), Captain Black (speaker), Major Major
Related Symbols: Catch-22
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

Captain Black does what he can to get Major Major in trouble, in part because he resents Major's swift (and to his mind, undeserved) rise through the ranks. The loyalty oath is a fine example of this, and an instance not just of the Catch-22 but of the "logic" of the witch hunt, something that would come to dominate post-war American political life. In a witch hunt, any protestation of innocence on the part of an accused party is viewed as a signal of guilt. At the same time an acceptance of guilt would, of course, be understood on its face, as a real acceptance of guilt. Thus, merely to be accused in this setup is to be found guilty - there is nothing any party can do under the circumstances. Black appears to know this, and so when he accused Major of being a Communist - Major, who seems to have no politics at all - he is attempting to seal Major's professional fate with the merest hint of impropriety. 

Chapter 14 Quotes

He [Yossarian] was wrong. There had been no clouds. Bologna had been bombed. Bologna was a milk run. There had been no flak there at all.

Related Characters: John “Yo-Yo” Yossarian, Clevinger
Page Number: 154
Explanation and Analysis:

Yossarian believes that Bologna will be a deadly affair - that the likelihood his plane will be shot out of the sky is high. Thus he sabotages his own mission by removing the intercom system from the plane, forcing the pilot, Sampson, to fly back. But Yossarian realizes that he has grounded himself from a mission that was easily dispatched, in which there was very little enemy resistance - a mission the group terms a "milk run."

Yossarian, then, has guessed incorrectly, if rationally. He thought Bologna would be dangerous, and he did what he could to avoid being killed during that fight. But as with other moments in war, this was a gamble, a guess made with some, but not all, necessary information. Yossarian knows that, despite whatever amount of planning he puts in, the war will demand what the war demands, and he will either be one of the lucky ones, or his "number" will be called and he will die on a mission. 

Chapter 19 Quotes

Colonel Cathcart was a slick, successful, slipshod, unhappy man of thirty-six who lumbered when he walked and wanted to be a general. He was dashing and dejected, poised and chagrined.

Related Characters: Clevinger, Colonel Cathcart
Page Number: 197
Explanation and Analysis:

Cathcart, whose name has an anagram of "Catch" within it, is the foil of Major Major, the character who cannot help being promoted above the level of his ability. Cathcart, on the other hand, believes he has what it takes to be a general, and he sets his sights on that position, doing everything he can to curry favor with superiors in order to move up the ranks. But the narrator notes that this form of ambition is not necessarily the most successful in wartime, or in the American military. A good deal of advancement seems to be derived from being "in the right place at the right time," or, more cynically, from refusing to contradict others above you. Cathcart, paradoxically, cannot do anything because he tries to do too much - he cannot ascend the military hierarchy because he wants to ascend it with all his might, and because his trying seems only to result in his failure. 

Chapter 20 Quotes

What displeased Corporal Whitcomb most about the chaplain, apart from the fact that the chaplain believed in God, was his lack of initiative and aggressiveness.

Related Characters: Chaplain Tappman, Clevinger, Corporal Whitcomb
Related Symbols: Catch-22
Page Number: 212
Explanation and Analysis:

Whitcomb does not believe in God and finds the chaplain to be a "weak" man, unsuited to a position of command. Others in the unit make fun of the chaplain for being a man of God, or for being "only" Anabaptist and not a Catholic priest - as though there were a hierarchy of religious denominations like ranks in the Army. The chaplain, for his part, wants to continue mildly on his way, and though he is frustrated by his maltreatment, he feels there is very little he can do about it.

Whitcomb's attitude - that he might "take over" the chaplaincy and expand the power of the position, despite his utter atheism - is another example of the absurdity of Army bureaucracy. Only in the Army, Heller seems to insist, would this kind of maneuver be possible - a man with no faith believing that the path to power involved the position of group pastor. Yet Whitcomb sees no paradox in his position - he simply wants to move up the ranks. 

Chapter 23 Quotes

The Germans are being driven out [of Italy], and we are still here. In a few years you will be gone, too, and we will still be here. You see, Italy is a very poor and weak country, and that’s what makes us so strong.

Related Symbols: Catch-22, Rome
Page Number: 253
Explanation and Analysis:

The old man Nately discovers in Rome argues that it is Italy's very weakness that is the source of its strength. Nately believes this is a horrible, unpatriotic thing for the old man to argue for - yet the old man insists that weakness, for Italy, makes the country strong. Nately wonders how this can be.

The old man counters that Italy, though not principled, is adaptable, in ways that Germany and the United States could never be. Germany's principles have led it into the current conflict, in which it will be destroyed. And America's principles force Americans to defend freedoms around the world, often at great cost. But Italy's principle is simply survival, at least according to the old man. This means that when occupying powers are gone, Italy can go right back to being Italy, without concern for foreign involvement. This principle of self-preservation over all else keeps Italy alive, the old man insists. 

Chapter 24 Quotes

But the Germans are also members in good standing of the syndicate, and it’s my job to protect their rights as shareholders. . . . Don’t you understand that I have to respect the sanctity of my contract with Germany?

Related Characters: Milo Minderbinder (speaker)
Related Symbols: Catch-22
Page Number: 265
Explanation and Analysis:

Milo here argues for yet another kind of paradox. Because he has an import-export business, he feels it is his contractual obligation to protect his merchandise at all costs. Sometimes this means doing business with the Germans, which Yossarian finds, at best, to be politically suspect. Sometimes this means actively siding with the Germans, to make sure that Americans do not blockade the delivery of his goods. 

When Yossarian argues that the latter activity is most definitely an act of treason, Milo counters that it is simply a defense of his contract. And contracts, Milo insists, are an American tradition, unbreakable in their power. To violate a contract would be, in Milo's mind, to consort with the enemy. But making a profit through whatever means are necessary and available - that is, for Milo, a patriotic thing, the highest ideal to which an American man can ascribe. Although Yossarian finds this utterly absurd reasoning, he nevertheless is impressed by the convolutions of Milo's argument in favor of self-preservation. 

Chapter 27 Quotes

“You have a morbid aversion to dying. You probably resent the fact that you’re at war and might get your head blown off any second.”
“I more than resent it, sir. I’m absolutely incensed.”

Related Characters: John “Yo-Yo” Yossarian (speaker), Major Sanderson (speaker)
Related Symbols: Catch-22
Page Number: 313
Explanation and Analysis:

Sanderson believes that Yossarian is insane, and indeed, he wants Yossarian to be insane, as it makes his job as therapist more interesting. Sanderson complains that in his position he is often lonely, that no one in the group cares for him, and that the only excitement he has comes in the form of second-hand sex dreams, told to him by his patients.

Yossarian insists that, yes, he does have a fear of death, and that he doesn't want to put himself in a position where he might die or be injured. Sanderson considers this to be a signal indicator of insanity, because, after all, Yossarian's anxiety about death is overpowering - it keeps him from doing his job as it is intended to be done. Yet Sanderson does not believe he has the power to keep Yossarian out of active duty - Yossarian's insanity would have to be even more pronounced to keep him on the ground and out of harm's way. 

Chapter 30 Quotes

Even people who were not there remembered vividly exactly what happened next. There was the briefest, softest tsst! filtering audibly through the shattering, overwhelming howl of the planes engines, and then there were just Kid Sampson’s two pale, skinny legs, still joined by strings somehow at the bloody truncated hips, standing stock-still on the raft . . . .

Related Characters: Clevinger, Kid Sampson
Page Number: 348
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the war, some of the airmen enjoy themselves on the beaches in between battles, and Kid Sampson in particular spends time on the raft. When McWatt "buzzes" the beach as a lighthearted joke, his propeller accidentally mutilates Sampson, killing him. McWatt is so horrified at what he has done that he tells the rest of the airmen to parachute out of the plane, and then he "salutes" to the other airmen on the beach and flies into a mountain, killing himself.

McWatt's death, and Sampson's, indicate the thin line in war between jest and violence. McWatt, of course, did not intend to hurt anyone with his plane. But the plane itself is a dangerous machine, and the men are engaged in dangerous missions, day in, day out. The reality of death normalizes it, but does not prevent airmen from actually dying. In this case, the airmen are particularly haunted by the accidental circumstances causing the loss of two fellow soldiers. 

Chapter 31 Quotes

The War Department replied touchingly that there had been no error and that she [Mrs. Daneeka] was undoubtedly the victim of some sadistic and psychotic forger in her husband’s squadron. The letter to husband was returned unopened, stamped KILLED IN ACTION.

Related Characters: Clevinger, Mrs. Daneeka
Related Symbols: Catch-22
Page Number: 353
Explanation and Analysis:

Because Daneeka is afraid of flying, he asks to be placed on the flight logs of various planes, so he can "serve" his necessary hours in the air. McWatt agreed, on the day of the tragic accident, to "have" Daneeka on the logs. The rest of the airmen jumped out, but of course Daneeka did not, because he was not on the plane to begin with. But because Daneeka was not found with the other crewmen in the water, the War Department falsely believed that he died in the crash along with McWatt.

Mrs. Daneeka and the other soldiers then have an immensely difficult time convincing the War Department that Daneeka is, in fact, still alive. Because he has "died" bureaucratically, on the records sheet of the unit he is officially dead, and the bureaucracy is so slow-moving and dim-witted that it can do nothing to change this error once it has been written down. 

Chapter 34 Quotes

“They’re going to disappear him.”
“They’re what? What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. I heard them talking behind a door.”
. . .
“It doesn’t make sense. it isn’t even good grammar. What the hell does it mean when they disappear someone?”

Related Characters: John “Yo-Yo” Yossarian (speaker), Nurses Duckett and Cramer (speaker), Dunbar
Related Symbols: Catch-22
Page Number: 378
Explanation and Analysis:

Dunbar, in the eyes of the unit's officers, has been breaking far too many rules - far more than his fellow soldiers, who, the narrative has thus far demonstrated, have no trouble breaking lots of rules. When Nurses Duckett and Cramer state that Dunbar will be "disappeared," however, Yossarian's first response is a grammatical one - he doesn't consider "disappear" to be a transitive verb, something that can be done to someone. He is confused by their logic.

But just as the Army can argue that living people are "officially" dead, or that "sane" soldiers must continue to fly insanely dangerous missions, it can also simply make a soldier "disappear" once it is tired of that soldier. Dunbar's actions have made him like an enemy, but worse - for the enemy, of course, exists enough to torment the members of the unit. When Dunbar is disappeared, he no longer exists, but nor does he not exist - he simply is no longer a person in any sense: he has vanished entirely. 

Chapter 35 Quotes

No, sir . . . it’s generally known that you’ve flown only two missions. And that one of those occurred when Aarfy accidentally flew you over enemy territory while navigating you to Naples for a black-market water cooler.

Related Characters: Milo Minderbinder (speaker), Aarfy, Colonel Cathcart
Page Number: 382
Explanation and Analysis:

Milo makes fun of Cathcart, who, though he dispatches men into harm's way, does not fly missions himself, out of a fear of being shot down. Milo too wants to get out of flying missions, in part out of rational avoidance of danger, but in part to run his business, which he finds to be extremely profitable, especially as Germany becomes weakened and more in need of the goods Milo supplies.

Milo has learned a great deal of trickery over the course of the war, and in this instance he tricks Cathcart, who, like Milo, wants a slice of the M & M industries profits. It is important to note that, in his satire of the relation between capital and war-time activities, Heller seems conscious of the potential for conquering armies, like the Americans in this case, to profit from the very people whom they are fighting. 

Chapter 37 Quotes

Do you know what he wants? He wants us to march. He wants everyone to march!

Related Characters: Scheisskopf
Page Number: 402
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes from one of the more ridiculous characters in a novel full of them. Scheisskopf loves one thing and one thing only, as a military man: parades. He believes that parades are the heart and soul of the military enterprise, and he schedules them with great gusto whenever he can. All the other soldiers are horrified at these parades, because parades mean marching, and marching means physical exertion, especially for the men who are accustomed to sitting at their desks all day, sending other men to fight the war and put their lives in danger.

Heller here satirizes the Army's static quality - the tendency for officers to forget the reality of the field, and to take great comfort in their safe desk-work. Scheisskopf's idea for organization has nothing to do with battlefield tactics, and it will certainly not help the war effort from a strategic perspective. But it will force lots of men to march, and that, for Scheisskopf, is an absolute good in itself. 

Chapter 39 Quotes

Catch-22 . . . . Catch-22. Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we can’t stop them from doing.

Related Symbols: Catch-22, Rome
Page Number: 417
Explanation and Analysis:

This is one of the more chilling passages in the novel. Yossarian has gone AWOL, absent without leave, and he lands in Rome to discover that the city is mostly destroyed (even though Rome was an "open city" during the war, and was largely protected from Allied bombardment). The old woman Yossarian meets claims that the destruction of Rome, and indeed the effort of the entire war, is a Catch-22 - but Yossarian does not understand how she could have known this term, which is particular to his unit. She says she learned it from American GIs who were in the apartment in her neighborhood with prostitutes. Yossarian believes these might be men of his unit, but he is not aware of which of the many contradictions and irrationalities of war these men could have been referring to. Indeed, Yossarian seems to think that, at this point, all of war, and all of Rome, is a Catch-22, a large impossibility, a thing too difficult to be worked out or understood. 

Chapter 41 Quotes

Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. . . . The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret.

Related Characters: Clevinger, Snowden
Page Number: 450
Explanation and Analysis:

Perhaps the most affecting passage in the novel. Yossarian is overcome with guilt at the thought that he was in some way responsible for Snowden's death, as he was in the plane with Snowden, and feels he did not do enough to deflect the plane away from enemy fire. At first, Yossarian believed that Snowden was only hit in the leg, but then he sees that under his flak vest Snowden has been mortally wounded. Taking off the vest, Yossarian sees Snowden "pour out" of his own body, a bloody mess.

Yossarian realizes, horrifically, that man is just a bundle of material, held together by the slimmest boundaries of skin and bone - and that once these are destroyed, man quite literally falls apart. This realization has so tormented Yossarian that in some sense, the entire activity of the novel, all Yossarian's attempts at being discharged, date back to this trauma, which only returns to him fully after he witnesses the destruction in Rome. 

Chapter 42 Quotes

Goodbye, Yossarian . . . and good luck. I’ll stay here and persevere, and we’ll meet again when the fighting stops.

Related Characters: Chaplain Tappman (speaker), John “Yo-Yo” Yossarian
Related Symbols: Catch-22
Page Number: 463
Explanation and Analysis:

Yossarian has throughout the novel been hemmed in by a series of Catch-22s, by the contradictions that keep him trapped in the Army and forced to fly missions until, he believes, he will be killed - at which point, perhaps, the Army might find it is time to discharge him, only to realize that he is already gone. Yossarian vows not to let that happen. He notes that he does have an option other than trying to become, or pretend to be, insane - he can simply desert. Desertion, for Yossarian, is a way of "dropping out" of the bind of the Catch-22. For if he simply leaves Italy, the Army cannot tell him to do anything.

The chaplain is heartened by this, for the chaplain, too, feels that the Army does not allow him to do his work. The chaplain himself is not allowed to serve as an actual spiritual adviser, because he fears his job will be taken away by people in the Army who think only of advancement, and who do not believe in God. For the chaplain, Yossarian is a beacon of strength and courage - for he has, the chaplain realizes, the bravery simply to walk away, to remove himself from the bind of war altogether.